Category Archives: change management

The power of imagination in public policy

“A new, a vast, and a powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis, in which to wield its truths so that these may become of more speedy and accurate practical application for the purposes of mankind than the means hitherto in our possession have rendered possible.” [on Ada Lovelace, The First tech Visionary, New Yorker, 2013]

What would Ada Lovelace have argued for in today’s AI debates? I think she may have used her voice not only to call for the good use of data analysis, but for her second strength.The power of her imagination.

James Ball recently wrote in The European [1]:

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the modern political war isn’t one against poverty, or against crime, or drugs, or even the tech giants – our modern political era is dominated by a war against reality.”

My overriding take away from three days spent at the Conservative Party Conference this week, was similar. It reaffirmed the title of a school debate I lost at age 15, ‘We only believe what we want to believe.’

James writes that it is, “easy to deny something that’s a few years in the future“, and that Conservatives, “especially pro-Brexit Conservatives – are sticking to that tried-and-tested formula: denying the facts, telling a story of the world as you’d like it to be, and waiting for the votes and applause to roll in.”

These positions are not confined to one party’s politics, or speeches of future hopes, but define perception of current reality.

I spent a lot of time listening to MPs. To Ministers, to Councillors, and to party members. At fringe events, in coffee queues, on the exhibition floor. I had conversations pressed against corridor walls as small press-illuminated swarms of people passed by with Queen Johnson or Rees-Mogg at their centre.

In one panel I heard a primary school teacher deny that child poverty really exists, or affects learning in the classroom.

In another, in passing, a digital Minister suggested that Pupil Referral Units (PRU) are where most of society’s ills start, but as a Birmingham head wrote this week, “They’ll blame the housing crisis on PRUs soon!” and “for the record, there aren’t gang recruiters outside our gates.”

This is no tirade on failings of public policymakers however. While it is easy to suspect malicious intent when you are at, or feel, the sharp end of policies which do harm, success is subjective.

It is clear that an overwhelming sense of self-belief exists in those responsible, in the intent of any given policy to do good.

Where policies include technology, this is underpinned by a self re-affirming belief in its power. Power waiting to be harnessed by government and the public sector. Even more appealing where it is sold as a cost-saving tool in cash strapped councils. Many that have cut away human staff are now trying to use machine power to make decisions. Some of the unintended consequences of taking humans out of the process, are catastrophic for human rights.

Sweeping human assumptions behind such thinking on social issues and their causes, are becoming hard coded into algorithmic solutions that involve identifying young people who are in danger of becoming involved in crime using “risk factors” such as truancy, school exclusion, domestic violence and gang membership.

The disconnect between perception of risk, the reality of risk, and real harm, whether perceived or felt from these applied policies in real-life, is not so much, ‘easy to deny something that’s a few years in the future‘ as Ball writes, but a denial of the reality now.

Concerningly, there is lack of imagination of what real harms look like.There is no discussion where sometimes these predictive policies have no positive, or even a negative effect, and make things worse.

I’m deeply concerned that there is an unwillingness to recognise any failures in current data processing in the public sector, particularly at scale, and where it regards the well-known poor quality of administrative data. Or to be accountable for its failures.

Harms, existing harms to individuals, are perceived as outliers. Any broad sweep of harms across policy like Universal Credit, seem perceived as political criticism, which makes the measurable failures less meaningful, less real, and less necessary to change.

There is a worrying growing trend of finger-pointing exclusively at others’ tech failures instead. In particular, social media companies.

Imagination and mistaken ideas are reinforced where the idea is plausible, and shared. An oft heard and self-affirming belief was repeated in many fora between policymakers, media, NGOs regards children’s online safety. “There is no regulation online”. In fact, much that applies offline applies online. The Crown Prosecution Service Social Media Guidelines is a good place to start. [2] But no one discusses where children’s lives may be put at risk or less safe, through the use of state information about them.

Policymakers want data to give us certainty. But many uses of big data, and new tools appear to do little more than quantify moral fears, and yet still guide real-life interventions in real-lives.

Child abuse prediction, and school exclusion interventions should not be test-beds for technology the public cannot scrutinise or understand.

In one trial attempting to predict exclusion, this recent UK research project in 2013-16 linked children’s school records of 800 children in 40 London schools, with Metropolitan Police arrest records of all the participants. It found interventions created no benefit, and may have caused harm. [3]

“Anecdotal evidence from the EiE-L core workers indicated that in some instances schools informed students that they were enrolled on the intervention because they were the “worst kids”.”

Keeping students in education, by providing them with an inclusive school environment, which would facilitate school bonds in the context of supportive student–teacher relationships, should be seen as a key goal for educators and policy makers in this area,” researchers suggested.

But policy makers seem intent to use systems that tick boxes, and create triggers to single people out, with quantifiable impact.

Some of these systems are known to be poor, or harmful.

When it comes to predicting and preventing child abuse, there is concern with the harms in US programmes ahead of us, such as both Pittsburgh, and Chicago that has scrapped its programme.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services ended a high-profile program that used computer data mining to identify children at risk for serious injury or death after the agency’s top official called the technology unreliable, and children still died.

“We are not doing the predictive analytics because it didn’t seem to be predicting much,” DCFS Director Beverly “B.J.” Walker told the Tribune.

Many professionals in the UK share these concerns. How long will they be ignored and children be guinea pigs without transparent error rates, or recognition of the potential harmful effects?

Helen Margetts, Director of the Oxford Internet Institute and Programme Director for Public Policy at the Alan Turing Institute, suggested at the IGF event this week, that stopping the use of these AI in the public sector is impossible. We could not decide that, “we’re not doing this until we’ve decided how it’s going to be.” It can’t work like that.” [45:30]

Why on earth not? At least for these high risk projects.

How long should children be the test subjects of machine learning tools at scale, without transparent error rates, audit, or scrutiny of their systems and understanding of unintended consequences?

Is harm to any child a price you’re willing to pay to keep using these systems to perhaps identify others, while we don’t know?

Is there an acceptable positive versus negative outcome rate?

The evidence so far of AI in child abuse prediction is not clearly showing that more children are helped than harmed.

Surely it’s time to stop thinking, and demand action on this.

It doesn’t take much imagination, to see the harms. Safe technology, and safe use of data, does not prevent the imagination or innovation, employed for good.

If we continue to ignore views from Patrick Brown, Ruth Gilbert, Rachel Pearson and Gene Feder, Charmaine Fletcher, Mike Stein, Tina Shaw and John Simmonds I want to know why.

Where you are willing to sacrifice certainty of human safety for the machine decision, I want someone to be accountable for why.

 


References

[1] James Ball, The European, Those waging war against reality are doomed to failure, October 4, 2018.

[2] Thanks to Graham Smith for the link. “Social Media – Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) , August 2018.”

[3] Obsuth, I., Sutherland, A., Cope, A. et al. J Youth Adolescence (2017) 46: 538. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-016-0468-4 London Education and Inclusion Project (LEIP): Results from a Cluster-Randomized Controlled Trial of an Intervention to Reduce School Exclusion and Antisocial Behavior (March 2016)

Ethically problematic

Five years ago, researchers at the Manchester University School of Social Sciences wrote, “It will no longer be possible to assume that secondary data use is ethically unproblematic.”

Five years on, other people’s use of the language of data ethics puts social science at risk. Event after event, we are witnessing the gradual dissolution of the value and meaning of ‘ethics’, into little more than a buzzword.

Companies and organisations are using the language of ‘ethical’ behaviour blended with ‘corporate responsibility’ modelled after their own values, as a way to present competitive advantage.

Ethics is becoming shorthand for, ‘we’re the good guys’. It is being subverted by personal data users’ self-interest. Not to address concerns over the effects of data processing on individuals or communities, but to justify doing it anyway.

An ethics race

There’s certainly a race on for who gets to define what data ethics will mean. We have at least three new UK institutes competing for a voice in the space. Digital Catapult has formed an AI ethics committee. Data charities abound. Even Google has developed an ethical AI strategy of its own, in the wake of their Project Maven.

Lessons learned in public data policy should be clear by now. There should be no surprises how administrative data about us are used by others. We should expect fairness. Yet these basics still seem hard for some to accept.

The NHS Royal Free Hospital in 2015 was rightly criticised – because they tried “to commercialise personal confidentiality without personal consent,” as reported in Wired recently.

The shortcomings we found were avoidable,” wrote Elizabeth Denham in 2017 when the ICO found six ways the Google DeepMind — Royal Free deal did not comply with the Data Protection Act. The price of innovation, she said, didn’t need to be the erosion of fundamental privacy rights underpinned by the law.

If the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation is put on a statutory footing where does that leave the ICO, when their views differ?

It’s why the idea of DeepMind funding work in Ethics and Society seems incongruous to me. I wait to be proven wrong. In their own words, “technologists must take responsibility for the ethical and social impact of their work“. Breaking the law however, is conspicuous by its absence, and the Centre must not be used by companies, to generate pseudo lawful or ethical acceptability.

Do we need new digital ethics?

Admittedly, not all laws are good laws. But if recognising and acting under the authority of the rule-of-law is now an optional extra, it will undermine the ICO, sink public trust, and destroy any hope of achieving the research ambitions of UK social science.

I am not convinced there is any such thing as digital ethics. The claimed gap in an ability to get things right in this complex area, is too often after people simply get caught doing something wrong. Technologists abdicate accountability saying “we’re just developers,” and sociologists say, “we’re not tech people.

These shrugs of the shoulders by third-parties, should not be rewarded with more data access, or new contracts. Get it wrong, get out of our data.

This lack of acceptance of responsibility creates a sense of helplessness. We can’t make it work, so let’s make the technology do more. But even the most transparent algorithms will never be accountable. People can be accountable, and it must be possible to hold leaders to account for the outcomes of their decisions.

But it shouldn’t be surprising no one wants to be held to account. The consequences of some of these data uses are catastrophic.

Accountability is the number one problem to be solved right now. It includes openness of data errors, uses, outcomes, and policy. Are commercial companies, with public sector contracts, checking data are accurate and corrected from people who the data are about, before applying in predictive tools?

Unethical practice

As Tim Harford in the FT once asked about Big Data uses in general: “Who cares about causation or sampling bias, though, when there is money to be made?”

Problem area number two, whether researchers are are working towards a profit model, or chasing grant funding is this:

How data users can make unbiased decisions whether they should use the data? We have all the same bodies deciding on data access, that oversee its governance. Conflict of self interest is built-in by default, and the allure of new data territory is tempting.

But perhaps the UK key public data ethics problem, is that the policy is currently too often about the system goal, not about improving the experience of the people using systems. Not using technology as a tool, as if people mattered. Harmful policy, can generate harmful data.

Secondary uses of data are intrinsically dependent on the ethics of the data’s operational purpose at collection. Damage-by-design is evident right now across a range of UK commercial and administrative systems. Metrics of policy success and associated data may be just wrong.

Some of the damage is done by collecting data for one purpose and using it operationally for another in secret. Until these modus operandi change no one should think that “data ethics will save us”.

Some of the most ethical research aims try to reveal these problems. But we need to also recognise not all research would be welcomed by the people the research is about, and few researchers want to talk about it. Among hundreds of already-approved university research ethics board applications I’ve read, some were desperately lacking. An organisation is no more ethical than the people who make decisions in its name. People disagree on what is morally right. People can game data input and outcomes and fail reproducibility. Markets and monopolies of power bias aims. Trying to support the next cohort of PhDs and impact for the REF, shapes priorities and values.

Individuals turn into data, and data become regnant.” Data are often lacking in quality and completeness and given authority they do not deserve.

It is still rare to find informed discussion among the brightest and best of our leading data institutions, about the extensive everyday real world secondary data use across public authorities, including where that use may be unlawful and unethical, like buying from data brokers. Research users are pushing those boundaries for more and more without public debate. Who says what’s too far?

The only way is ethics? Where next?

The latest academic-commercial mash-ups on why we need new data ethics in a new regulatory landscape where the established is seen as past it, is a dangerous catch-all ‘get out of jail free card’.

Ethical barriers are out of step with some of today’s data politics. The law is being sidestepped and regulation diminished by lack of enforcement of gratuitous data grabs from the Internet of Things, and social media data are seen as a free-for-all. Data access barriers are unwanted. What is left to prevent harm?

I’m certain that we first need to take a step back if we are to move forward. Ethical values are founded on human rights that existed before data protection law. Fundamental human decency, rights to privacy, and to freedom from interference, common law confidentiality, tort, and professional codes of conduct on conflict of interest, and confidentiality.

Data protection law emphasises data use. But too often its first principles of necessity and proportionality are ignored. Ethical practice would ask more often, should we collect the data at all?

Although GDPR requires new necessary safeguards to ensure that technical and organisational measures are met to control and process data, and there is a clearly defined Right to Object, I am yet to see a single event thought giving this any thought.

Let’s not pretend secondary use of data is unproblematic, while uses are decided in secret. Calls for a new infrastructure actually seek workarounds of regulation. And human rights are dismissed.

Building a social license between data subjects and data users is unavoidable if use of data about people hopes to be ethical.

The lasting solutions are underpinned by law, and ethics. Accountability for risk and harm. Put the person first in all things.

We need more than hopes and dreams and talk of ethics.

We need realism if we are to get a future UK data strategy that enables human flourishing, with public support.

Notes of desperation or exasperation are increasingly evident in discourse on data policy, and start to sound little better than ‘we want more data at all costs’. If so, the true costs would be lasting.

Perhaps then it is unsurprising that there are calls for a new infrastructure to make it happen, in the form of Data Trusts. Some thoughts on that follow too.


Part 1. Ethically problematic

Ethics is dissolving into little more than a buzzword. Can we find solutions underpinned by law, and ethics, and put the person first?

Part 2. Can Data Trusts be trustworthy?

As long as data users ignore data subjects rights, Data Trusts have no social license.


Data Horizons: New Forms of Data For Social Research,

Elliot, M., Purdam, K., Mackey, E., School of Social Sciences, The University Of Manchester, CCSR Report 2013-312/6/2013

The power behind today’s AI in public services

The power behind today’s AI in public services

Thinking about whether education in England is preparing us for the jobs of the future, means also thinking about how technology will influence it.

Time and again, thinking and discussion about these topics is siloed. At the Turing Institute, the Royal Society, the ADRN and EPSRC, in government departments, discussions on data, or within education practitioner, and public circles — we are all having similar discussions about data and ethics, but with little ownership and no goals for future outcomes. If government doesn’t get it, or have time for it, or policy lacks ethics by design, is it in the public interest for private companies, Google et al., to offer a fait accompli?

There is lots of talking about Machine Learning (ML), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and ethics. But what is being done to ensure that real values — respect for rights, human dignity, and autonomy — are built into practice in the public services delivery?

In most recent data policy it is entirely absent. The Digital Economy Act s33 risks enabling, through removal of inter and intra-departmental data protections, an unprecedented expansion of public data transfers, with “untrammelled powers”. Powers without codes of practice, promised over a year ago. That has fall out for the trustworthiness of legislative process, and data practices across public services.

Predictive analytics is growing but poorly understood in the public and public sector.

There is already dependence on computers in aspects of public sector work. Its interactions with others in sensitive situations demands better knowledge of how systems operate and can be wrong. Debt recovery, and social care to take two known examples.

Risk averse, staff appear to choose not to question the outcome of ‘algorithmic decision making’ or do not have the ability to do so. There is reportedly no analysis training for practitioners, to understand the basis or bias of conclusions. This has the potential that instead of making us more informed, decision-making by machine makes us humans less clever.

What does it do to professionals, if they feel therefore less empowered? When is that a good thing if it overrides discriminatory human decisions? How can we tell the difference and balance these risks if we don’t understand or feel able to challenge them?

In education, what is it doing to children whose attainment is profiled, predicted, and acted on to target extra or less focus from school staff, who have no ML training and without informed consent of pupils or parents?

If authorities use data in ways the public do not expect, such as to ID homes of multiple occupancy without informed consent, they will fail the future to deliver uses for good. The ‘public interest’, ‘user need,’ and ethics can come into conflict according to your point of view. The public and data protection law and ethics object to harms from use of data. This type of application has potential to be mind-blowingly invasive and reveal all sorts of other findings.

Widely informed thinking must be made into meaningful public policy for the greatest public good

Our politicians are caught up in the General Election and buried in Brexit.

Meanwhile, the commercial companies taking AI first rights to capitalise on existing commercial advantage could potentially strip public assets, use up our personal data and public trust, and leave the public with little public good. We are already used by global data players, and by machine-based learning companies, without our knowledge or consent. That knowledge can be used to profit business models, that pay little tax into the public purse.

There are valid macro economic arguments about whether private spend and investment are preferable compared with a state’s ability to do the same. But these companies make more than enough to do it all. Does it signal a failure to a commitment to the wider community; not paying just amounts of taxes, is it a red flag to a company’s commitment to public good?

What that public good should look like, depends on who is invited to participate in the room, and not to tick boxes, but to think and to build.

The Royal Society’s Report on AI and Machine Learning published on April 25, showed a working group of 14 participants, including two Google DeepMind representatives, one from Amazon, private equity investors, and academics from cognitive science and genetics backgrounds.

Our #machinelearning working group chair, professor Peter Donnelly FRS, on today’s major #RSMachinelearning report https://t.co/PBYjzlESmB pic.twitter.com/RM9osnvOMX

— The Royal Society (@royalsociety) April 25, 2017

If we are going to form objective policies the inputs that form the basis for them must be informed, but must also be well balanced, and be seen to be balanced. Not as an add on, but be in the same room.

As Natasha Lomas in TechCrunch noted, “Public opinion is understandably a big preoccupation for the report authors — unsurprisingly so, given that a technology that potentially erodes people’s privacy and impacts their jobs risks being drastically unpopular.”

“The report also calls on researchers to consider the wider impact of their work and to receive training in recognising the ethical implications.”

What are those ethical implications? Who decides which matter most? How do we eliminate recognised discriminatory bias? What should data be used for and AI be working on at all? Who is it going to benefit? What questions are we not asking? Why are young people left out of this debate?

Who decides what the public should or should not know?

AI and ML depend on data. Data is often talked about as a panacea to problems of better working together. But data alone does not make people better informed. In the same way that they fail, if they don’t feel it is their job to pick up the fax. A fundamental building block of our future public and private prosperity is understanding data and how we, and the AI, interact. What is data telling us and how do we interpret it, and know it is accurate?

How and where will we start to educate young people about data and ML, if not about their own and use by government and commercial companies?

The whole of Chapter 5 in the report is very good as a starting point for policy makers who have not yet engaged in the area. Privacy while summed up too short in conclusions, is scattered throughout.

Blind spots remain, however.

  • Over willingness to accommodate existing big private players as their expertise leads design, development and a desire to ‘re-write regulation’.
  • Slowness to react to needed regulation in the public sector (caught up in Brexit) while commercial drivers and technology change forge ahead
  • ‘How do we develop technology that benefits everyone’ must not only think UK, but global South, especially in the bias in how AI is being to taught, and broad socio-economic barriers in application
  • Predictive analytics and professional application = unwillingness to question the computer result. In children’s social care this is already having a damaging upturn in the family courts (S31)
  • Data and technology knowledge and ethics training, must be embedded across the public sector, not only post grad students in machine learning.
  • Harms being done to young people today and potential for intense future exploitation, are being ignored by policy makers and some academics. Safeguarding is often only about blocking in case of liability to the provider, stopping children seeing content, or preventing physical exploitation. It ignores exploitation by online platform firms, and app providers and games creators, of a child’s synthesised online life and use. Laws and government departments’ own practices can be deeply flawed.
  • Young people are left out of discussions which, after all, are about their future. [They might have some of the best ideas, we miss at our peril.]

There is no time to waste

Children and young people have the most to lose while their education, skills, jobs market, economy, culture, care, and society goes through a series of gradual but seismic shift in purpose, culture, and acceptance before finding new norms post-Brexit. They will also gain the most if the foundations are right. One of these must be getting age verification right in GDPR, not allowing it to enable a massive data grab of child-parent privacy.

Although the RS Report considers young people in the context of a future workforce who need skills training, they are otherwise left out of this report.

“The next curriculum reform needs to consider the educational needs of young people through the lens of the implications of machine learning and associated technologies for the future of work.”

Yes it does, but it must give young people and the implications of ML broader consideration for their future, than classroom or workplace.

Facebook has targeted vulnerable young people, it is alleged, to facilitate predatory advertising practices. Some argue that emotive computing or MOOCs belong in the classroom. Who decides?

We are not yet talking about the effects of teaching technology to learn, and its effect on public services and interactions with the public. Questions that Sam Smith asked in Shadow of the smart machine: Will machine learning end?

At the end of this Information Age we are at a point when machine learning, AI and biotechnology are potentially life enhancing or could have catastrophic effects, if indeed “AI will cause people ‘more pain than happiness” as described by Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma.

The conflict between commercial profit and public good, what commercial companies say they will do and actually do, and fears and assurances over predicted outcomes is personified in the debate between Demis Hassabis, co-founder of DeepMind Technologies, (a London-based machine learning AI startup), and Elon Musk, discussing the perils of artificial intelligence.

Vanity Fair reported that, Elon Musk began warning about the possibility of A.I. running amok three years ago. It probably hadn’t eased his mind when one of Hassabis’s partners in DeepMind, Shane Legg, stated flatly, “I think human extinction will probably occur, and technology will likely play a part in this.””

Musk was of the opinion that A.I. was probably humanity’s “biggest existential threat.”

We are not yet joining up multi disciplinary and cross sector discussions of threats and opportunities

Jobs, shift in needed skill sets for education, how we think, interact, value each other, accept or reject ownership and power models; and later, from the technology itself. We are not yet talking conversely, the opportunities that the seismic shifts offer in real terms. Or how and why to accept or reject or regulate them.

Where private companies are taking over personal data given in trust to public services, it is reckless for the future of public interest research to assume there is no public objection. How can we object, if not asked? How can children make an informed choice? How will public interest be assured to be put ahead of private profit? If it is intended on balance to be all about altruism from these global giants, then they must be open and accountable.

Private companies are shaping how and where we find machine learning and AI gathering data about our behaviours in our homes and public spaces.

SPACE10, an innovation hub for IKEA is currently running a survey on how the public perceives and “wants their AI to look, be, and act”, with an eye on building AI into their products, for us to bring flat-pack into our houses.

As the surveillance technology built into the Things in our homes attached to the Internet becomes more integral to daily life, authorities are now using it to gather evidence in investigations; from mobile phones, laptops, social media, smart speakers, and games. The IoT so far seems less about the benefits of collaboration, and all about the behavioural data it collects and uses to target us to sell us more things. Our behaviours tell much more than how we act. They show how we think inside the private space of our minds.

Do you want Google to know how you think and have control over that? The companies of the world that have access to massive amounts of data, and are using that data to now teach AI how to ‘think’. What is AI learning? And how much should the State see or know about how you think, or try to predict it?

Who cares, wins?

It is not overstated to say society and future public good of public services, depends on getting any co-dependencies right. As I wrote in the time of care.data, the economic value of data, personal rights and the public interest are not opposed to one another, but have synergies and co-dependency. One player getting it wrong, can create harm for all. Government must start to care about this, beyond the side effects of saving political embarrassment.

Without joining up all aspects, we cannot limit harms and make the most of benefits. There is nuance and unknowns. There is opaque decision making and secrecy, packaged in the wording of commercial sensitivity and behind it, people who can be brilliant but at the end of the day, are also, human, with all our strengths and weaknesses.

And we can get this right, if data practices get better, with joined up efforts.

Our future society, as our present, is based on webs of trust, on our social networks on- and offline, that enable business, our education, our cultural, and our interactions. Children must trust they will not be used by systems. We must build trustworthy systems that enable future digital integrity.

The immediate harm that comes from blind trust in AI companies is not their AI, but the hidden powers that commercial companies have to nudge public and policy maker behaviours and acceptance, towards private gain. Their ability and opportunity to influence regulation and future direction outweighs most others. But lack of transparency about their profit motives is concerning. Carefully staged public engagement is not real engagement but a fig leaf to show ‘the public say yes’.

The unwillingness by Google DeepMind, when asked at their public engagement event, to discuss their past use of NHS patient data, or the profit model plan or their terms of NHS deals with London hospitals, should be a warning that these questions need answers and accountability urgently.

As TechCrunch suggested after the event, this is all “pretty standard playbook for tech firms seeking to workaround business barriers created by regulation.” Calls for more data, might mean an ever greater power shift.

Companies that have already extracted and benefited from personal data in the public sector, have already made private profit. They and their machines have learned for their future business product development.

A transparent accountable future for all players, private and public, using public data is a necessary requirement for both the public good and private profit. It is not acceptable for departments to hide their practices, just as it is unacceptable if firms refuse algorithmic transparency.

Rebooting antitrust for the information age will not be easy. It will entail new risks: more data sharing, for instance, could threaten privacy. But if governments don’t want a data economy dominated by a few giants, they will need to act soon.” [The Economist, May 6]

If the State creates a single data source of truth, or private Giant tech thinks it can side-step regulation and gets it wrong, their practices screw up public trust. It harms public interest research, and with it our future public good.

But will they care?

If we care, then across public and private sectors, we must cherish shared values and better collaboration. Embed ethical human values into development, design and policy. Ensure transparency of where, how, who and why my personal data has gone.

We must ensure that as the future becomes “smarter”, we educate ourselves and our children to stay intelligent about how we use data and AI.

We must start today, knowing how we are used by both machines, and man.


First published on Medium for a change.

Is education preparing us for the jobs of the future?

The Fabian Women, Glass Ceiling not Glass Slipper event, asked last week:

Is Education preparing us for the jobs of the future?

The panel talked about changing social and political realities. We considered the effects on employment. We began discussion how those changes should feed into education policy and practice today. It is discussion that should be had by the public. So far, almost a year after the Referendum, the UK government is yet to say what post-Brexit Britain might look like. Without a vision, any mandate for the unknown, if voted for on June 9th, will be meaningless.

What was talked about and what should be a public debate:

  • What jobs will be needed in the future?
  • Post Brexit, what skills will we need in the UK?
  • How can the education system adapt and improve to help future generations develop skills in this ever changing landscape?
  • How do we ensure women [and anyone else] are not left behind?

Brexit is the biggest change management project I may never see.

As the State continues making and remaking laws, reforming education, and starts exiting the EU, all in parallel, technology and commercial companies won’t wait to see what the post-Brexit Britain will look like. In our state’s absence of vision, companies are shaping policy and ‘re-writing’ their own version of regulations. What implications could this have for long term public good?

What will be needed in the UK future?

A couple of sentences from Alan Penn have stuck with me all week. Loosely quoted, we’re seeing cultural identity shift across the country, due to the change of our available employment types. Traditional industries once ran in a family, with a strong sense of heritage. New jobs don’t offer that. It leaves a gap we cannot fill with “I’m a call centre worker”. And this change is unevenly felt.

There is no tangible public plan in the Digital Strategy for dealing with that change in the coming 10 to 20 years employment market and what it means tied into education. It matters when many believe, as do these authors in American Scientific, “around half of today’s jobs will be threatened by algorithms. 40% of today’s top 500 companies will have vanished in a decade.”

So what needs thought?

  • Analysis of what that regional jobs market might look like, should be a public part of the Brexit debate and these elections →
    We need to see those goals, to ensure policy can be planned for education and benchmark its progress towards achieving its aims
  • Brexit and technology will disproportionately affect different segments of the jobs market and therefore the population by age, by region, by socio-economic factors →
    Education policy must therefore address aspects of skills looking to the future towards employment in that new environment, so that we make the most of opportunities, and mitigate the harms.
  • Brexit and technology will disproportionately affect communities → What will be done to prevent social collapse in regions hardest hit by change?

Where are we starting from today?

Before we can understand the impact of change, we need to understand what the present looks like. I cannot find a map of what the English education system looks like. No one I ask seems to have one or have a firm grasp across the sector, of how and where all the parts of England’s education system fit together, or their oversight and accountability. Everyone has an idea, but no one can join the dots. If you have, please let me know.

Nothing is constant in education like change; in laws, policy and its effects in practice, so I shall start there.

1. Legislation

In retrospect it was a fatal flaw, missed in post-Referendum battles of who wrote what on the side of a bus, that no one did an assessment of education [and indeed other] ‘legislation in progress’. There should have been recommendations made on scrapping inappropriate government bills in entirety or in parts. New laws are now being enacted, rushed through in wash up, that are geared to our old status quo, and we risk basing policy only on what we know from the past, because on that, we have data.

In the timeframe that Brexit will become tangible, we will feel the effects of the greatest shake up of Higher Education in 25 years. Parts of the Higher Education and Research Act, and Technical and Further Education Act are unsuited to the new order post-Brexit.

What it will do: The new HE law encourages competition between institutions, and the TFE Act centred in large part on how to manage insolvency.

What it should do: Policy needs to promote open, collaborative networks if within a now reduced research and academic circle, scholarly communities are to thrive.

If nothing changes, we will see harm to these teaching institutions and people in them. The stance on counting foreign students in total migrant numbers, to take an example, is singularly pointless.

Even the Royal Society report on Machine Learning noted the UK approach to immigration as a potential harm to prosperity.

Local authorities cannot legally build schools under their authority today, even if needed. They must be free schools. This model has seen high turnover and closures, a rather instable model.

Legislation has recently not only meant restructure, but repurposing of what education [authorities] is expected to offer.

A new Statutory Instrument — The School and Early Years Finance (England) Regulations 2017 — makes music, arts and playgrounds items; ‘That may be removed from maintained schools’ budget shares’.

How will this withdrawal of provision affect skills starting from the Early Years throughout young people’s education?

2. Policy

Education policy if it continues along the grammar school path, will divide communities into ‘passed’ and the ‘unselected’. A side effect of selective schooling— a feature or a bug dependent on your point of view — is socio-economic engineering. It builds class walls in the classroom, while others, like Fabian Women, say we should be breaking through glass ceilings. Current policy in a wider sense, is creating an environment that is hostile to human integration. It creates division across the entire education system for children aged 2–19.

The curriculum is narrowing, according to staff I’ve spoken to recently, as a result of measurement focus on Progress 8, and due to funding constraints.

What effect will this have on analysis of knowledge, discernment, how to assess when computers have made a mistake or supplied misinformation, and how to apply wisdom? Skills that today still distinguish human from machine learning.

What narrowing the curriculum does: Students have fewer opportunities to discover their skill set, limiting opportunities for developing social skills and cultural development, and their development as rounded, happy, human beings.

What we could do: Promote long term love of learning in-and-outside school and in communities. Reinvest in the arts, music and play, which support mental and physical health and create a culture in which people like to live as well as work. Library and community centres funding must be re-prioritised, ensuring inclusion and provision outside school for all abilities.

Austerity builds barriers of access to opportunity and skills. Children who cannot afford to, are excluded from extra curricular classes. We already divide our children through private and state education, into those who have better facilities and funding to enjoy and explore a fully rounded education, and those whose funding will not stretch much beyond the bare curriculum. For SEN children, that has already been stripped back further.

All the accepted current evidence says selective schooling limits social mobility and limits choice. Talk of evidence based profession is hard to square with passion for grammars, an against-the-evidence based policy.

Existing barriers are likely to become entrenched in twenty years. What does it do to society, if we are divided in our communities by money, or gender, or race, and feel disempowered as individuals? Are we less responsible for our actions if there’s nothing we can do about it? If others have more money, more power than us, others have more control over our lives, and “no matter what we do, we won’t pass the 11 plus”?

Without joined-up scrutiny of these policy effects across the board, we risk embedding these barriers into future planning. Today’s data are used to train “how the system should work”. If current data are what applicants in 5 years will base future expectations on, will their decisions be objective and will in-built bias be transparent?

3. Sociological effects of legislation.

It’s not only institutions that will lose autonomy in the Higher Education and Research Act.

At present, the risk to the autonomy of science and research is theoretical — but the implications for academic freedom are troubling. [Nature 538, 5 (06 October 2016)]

The Secretary of State for Education now also has new Powers of Information about individual applicants and students. Combined with the Digital Economy Act, the law can ride roughshod over students’ autonomy and consent choices. Today they can opt out of UCAS automatically sharing their personal data with the Student Loans Company for example. Thanks to these new powers, and combined with the Digital Economy Act, that’s gone.

The Act further includes the intention to make institutions release more data about course intake and results under the banner of ‘transparency’. Part of the aim is indisputably positive, to expose discrimination and inequality of all kinds. It also aims to make the £ cost-benefit return “clearer” to applicants — by showing what exams you need to get in, what you come out with, and then by joining all that personal data to the longitudinal school record, tax and welfare data, you see what the return is on your student loan. The government can also then see what your education ‘cost or benefit’ the Treasury. It is all of course much more nuanced than that, but that’s the very simplified gist.

This ‘destinations data’ is going to be a dataset we hear ever more about and has the potential to influence education policy from age 2.

Aside from the issue of personal data disclosiveness when published by institutions — we already know of individuals who could spot themselves in a current published dataset — I worry that this direction using data for ‘advice’ is unhelpful. What if we’re looking at the wrong data upon which to base future decisions? The past doesn’t take account of Brexit or enable applicants to do so.

Researchers [and applicants, the year before they apply or start a course] will be looking at what *was* — predicted and achieved qualifying grades, make up of the class, course results, first job earnings — what was for other people, is at least 5 years old by the time it’s looked at it. Five years is a long time out of date.

4. Change

Teachers and schools have long since reached saturation point in the last 5 years to handle change. Reform has been drastic, in structures, curriculum, and ongoing in funding. There is no ongoing teacher training, and lack of CPD take up, is exacerbated by underfunding.

Teachers are fed up with change. They want stability. But contrary to the current “strong and stable” message, reality is that ahead we will get anything but, and must instead manage change if we are to thrive. Politically, we will see backlash when ‘stable’ is undeliverable.

But Teaching has not seen ‘stable’ for some time. Teachers are asking for fewer children, and more cash in the classroom. Unions talk of a focus on learning, not testing, to drive school standards. If the planned restructuring of funding happens, how will it affect staff retention?

We know schools are already reducing staff. How will this affect employment, adult and children’s skill development, their ambition, and society and economy?

Where could legislation and policy look ahead?

  • What are the big Brexit targets and barriers and when do we expect them?
  • How is the fall out from underfunding and reduction of teaching staff expected to affect skills provision?
  • State education policy is increasingly hands-off. What is the incentive for local schools or MATs to look much beyond the short term?
  • How do local decisions ensure education is preparing their community, but also considering society, health and (elderly) social care, Post-Brexit readiness and women’s economic empowerment?
  • How does our ageing population shift in the same time frame?

How can the education system adapt?

We need to talk more about other changes in the system in parallel to Brexit; join the dots, plus the potential positive and harmful effects of technology.

Gender here too plays a role, as does mitigating discrimination of all kinds, confirmation bias, and even in the tech itself, whether AI for example, is going to be better than us at decision-making, if we teach AI to be biased.

Dr Lisa Maria Mueller talked about the effects and influence of age, setting and language factors on what skills we will need, and employment. While there are certain skills sets that computers are and will be better at than people, she argued society also needs to continue to cultivate human skills in cultural sensitivities, empathy, and understanding. We all nodded. But how?

To develop all these human skills is going to take investment. Investment in the humans that teach us. Bennie Kara, Assistant Headteacher in London, spoke about school cuts and how they will affect children’s futures.

The future of England’s education must be geared to a world in which knowledge and facts are ubiquitous, and readily available online than at any other time. And access to learning must be inclusive. That means including SEN and low income families, the unskilled, everyone. As we become more internationally remote, we must put safeguards in place if we to support thriving communities.

Policy and legislation must also preserve and respect human dignity in a changing work environment, and review not only what work is on offer, but *how*; the kinds of contracts and jobs available.

Where might practice need to adapt now?

  • Re-consider curriculum content with its focus on facts. Will success risk being measured based on out of date knowledge, and a measure of recall? Are these skills in growing or dwindling need?
  • Knowledge focus must place value on analysis, discernment, and application of facts that computers will learn and recall better than us. Much of that learning happens outside school.
  • Opportunities have been cut, together with funding. We need communities brought back together, if they are not to collapse. Funding centres of local learning, restoring libraries and community centres will be essential to local skill development.

What is missing?

Although Sarah Waite spoke (in a suitably Purdah appropriate tone), about the importance of basic skills in the future labour market we didn’t get to talking about education preparing us for the lack of jobs of the future and what that changed labour market will look like.

What skills will *not* be needed? Who decides? If left to companies’ sponsor led steer in academies, what effects will we see in society?

Discussions of a future education model and technology seem to share a common theme: people seem reduced in making autonomous choices. But they share no positive vision.

  • Technology should empower us, but it seems to empower the State and diminish citizens’ autonomy in many of today’s policies, and in future scenarios especially around the use of personal data and Digital Economy.
  • Technology should enable greater collaboration, but current tech in education policy is focused too little on use on children’s own terms, and too heavily on top-down monitoring: of scoring, screen time, search terms. Further restrictions by Age Verification are coming, and may access and reduce participation in online services if not done well.
  • Infrastructure weakness is letting down the skill training: University Technical Colleges (UTCs) are not popular and failing to fill places. There is lack of an overarching area wide strategic plan for pupils in which UTCS play a part. Local Authorities played an important part in regional planning which needs restored to ensure joined up local thinking.

How do we ensure women are not left behind?

The final question of the evening asked how women will be affected by Brexit and changing job market. Part of the risks overall, the panel concluded, is related to [lack of] equal-pay. But where are the assessments of the gendered effects in the UK of:

  • community structural change and intra-family support and effect on demand for social care
  • tech solutions in response to lack of human interaction and staffing shortages including robots in the home and telecare
  • the disproportionate drop out of work, due to unpaid care roles, and difficulty getting back in after a break.
  • the roles and types of work likely to be most affected or replaced by machine learning and robots
  • and how will women be empowered or not socially by technology?

We quickly need in education to respond to the known data where women are already being left behind now. The attrition rate for example in teaching in England after two-three years is poor, and getting worse. What will government do to keep teachers teaching? Their value as role models is not captured in pupils’ exams results based entirely on knowledge transfer.

Our GCSEs this year go back to pure exam based testing, and remove applied coursework marking, and is likely to see lower attainment for girls than boys, say practitioners. Likely to leave girls behind at an earlier age.

“There is compelling evidence to suggest that girls in particular may be affected by the changes — as research suggests that boys perform more confidently when assessed by exams alone.”

Jennifer Tuckett spoke about what fairness might look like for female education in the Creative Industries. From school-leaver to returning mother, and retraining older women, appreciating the effects of gender in education is intrinsic to the future jobs market.

We also need broader public understanding of the loop of the impacts of technology, on the process and delivery of teaching itself, and as school management becomes increasingly important and is male dominated, how will changes in teaching affect women disproportionately? Fact delivery and testing can be done by machine, and supports current policy direction, but can a computer create a love of learning and teach humans how to think?

“There is a opportunity for a holistic synthesis of research into gender, the effect of tech on the workplace, the effect of technology on care roles, risks and opportunities.”

Delivering education to ensure women are not left behind, includes avoiding women going into education as teenagers now, to be led down routes without thinking of what they want and need in future. Regardless of work.

Education must adapt to changed employment markets, and the social and community effects of Brexit. If it does not, barriers will become embedded. Geographical, economic, language, familial, skills, and social exclusion.

In short

In summary, what is the government’s Brexit vision? We must know what they see five, 10, and for 25 years ahead, set against understanding the landscape as-is, in order to peg other policy to it.

With this foundation, what we know and what we estimate we don’t know yet can be planned for.

Once we know where we are going in policy, we can do a fit-gap to map how to get people there.

Estimate which skills gaps need filled and which do not. Where will change be hardest?

Change is not new. But there is current potential for massive long term economic and social lasting damage to our young people today. Government is hindered by short term political thinking, but it has a long-term responsibility to ensure children are not mis-educated because policy and the future environment are not aligned.

We deserve public, transparent, informed debate to plan our lives.

We enter the unknown of the education triangle at our peril; Brexit, underfunding, divisive structural policy, for the next ten years and beyond, without appropriate adjustment to pre-Brexit legislation and policy plans for the new world order.

The combined negative effects on employment at scale and at pace must be assessed with urgency, not by big Tech who will profit, but with an eye on future fairness, and public economic and social good. Academy sponsors, decision makers in curriculum choices, schools with limited funding, have no incentives to look to the wider world.

If we’re going to go it alone, we’d be better be robust as a society, and that can’t be just some of us, and can’t only be about skills as seen as having an tangible output.

All this discussion is framed by the premise that education’s aim is to prepare a future workforce for work, and that it is sustainable.

Policy is increasingly based on work that is measured by economic output. We must not leave out or behind those who do not, or cannot, or whose work is unmeasured yet contributes to the world.

‘The only future worth building includes everyone,’ said the Pope in a recent TedTalk.

What kind of future do you want to see yourself living in? Will we all work or will there be universal basic income? What will happen on housing, an ageing population, air pollution, prisons, free movement, migration, and health? What will keep communities together as their known world in employment, and family life, and support collapse? How will education enable children to discover their talents and passions?

Human beings are more than what we do. The sense of a country of who we are and what we stand for is about more than our employment or what we earn. And we cannot live on slogans alone.

Who do we think we in the UK will be after Brexit, needs real and substantial answers. What are we going to *do* and *be* in the world?

Without this vision, any mandate as voted for on June 9th, will be made in the dark and open to future objection writ large. ‘We’ must be inclusive based on a consensus, not simply a ‘mandate’.

Only with clear vision for all these facets fitting together in a model of how we will grow in all senses, will we be able to answer the question, is education preparing us [all] for the jobs of the future?

More than this, we must ask if education is preparing people for the lack of jobs, for changing relationships in our communities, with each other, and with machines.

Change is coming, Brexit or not. But Brexit has exacerbated the potential to miss opportunities, embed barriers, and see negative side-effects from changes already underway in employment, in an accelerated timeframe.

If our education policy today is not gearing up to that change, we must.

A vanquished ghost returns as details of distress required in NHS opt out

It seems the ugly ghosts of care.data past were alive and well at NHS Digital this Christmas.

Old style thinking, the top-down patriarchal ‘no one who uses a public service should be allowed to opt out of sharing their records. Nor can people rely on their record being anonymised,‘ that you thought was vanquished, has returned with a vengeance.

The Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, has reportedly  done a U-turn on opt out of the transfer of our medical records to third parties without consent.

That backtracks on what he said in Parliament on January 25th, 2014 on opt out of anonymous data transfers, despite the right to object in the NHS constitution [1].

So what’s the solution? If the new opt out methods aren’t working, then back to the old ones and making Section 10 requests? But it seems the Information Centre isn’t keen on making that work either.

All the data the HSCIC holds is sensitive and as such, its release risks patients’ significant harm or distress [2] so it shouldn’t be difficult to tell them to cease and desist, when it comes to data about you.

But how is NHS Digital responding to people who make the effort to write directly?

Someone who “got a very unhelpful reply” is being made to jump through hoops.

If anyone asks that their hospital data should not be used in any format and passed to third parties, that’s surely for them to decide.

Let’s take the case study of a woman who spoke to me during the whole care.data debacle who had been let down by the records system after rape. Her NHS records subsequently about her mental health care were inaccurate, and had led to her being denied the benefit of private health insurance at a new job.

Would she have to detail why selling her medical records would cause her distress? What level of detail is fair and who decides? The whole point is, you want to keep info confidential.

Should you have to state what you fear? “I have future distress, what you might do to me?” Once you lose control of data, it’s gone. Based on past planning secrecy and ideas for the future, like mashing up health data with retail loyalty cards as suggested at Strata in November 2013 [from 16:00] [2] no wonder people are sceptical. 

Given the long list of commercial companies,  charities, think tanks and others that passing out our sensitive data puts at risk and given the Information Centre’s past record, HSCIC might be grateful they have only opt out requests to deal with, and not millions of medical ethics court summonses. So far.

HSCIC / NHS Digital has extracted our identifiable records and has given them away, including for commercial product use, and continues give them away, without informing us. We’ve accepted Ministers’ statements and that a solution would be found. Two years on, patience wears thin.

“Without that external trust, we risk losing our public mandate and then cannot offer the vital insights that quality healthcare requires.”

— Sir Nick Partridge on publication of the audit report of 10% of 3,059 releases by the HSCIC between 2005-13

— Andy WIlliams said, “We want people to be certain their choices will be followed.”

Jeremy Hunt said everyone should be able to opt out of having their anonymised data used. David Cameron did too when the plan was  announced in 2012.

In 2014 the public was told there should be no more surprises. This latest response is not only a surprise but enormously disrespectful.

When you’re trying to rebuild trust, assuming that we accept that ‘is’ the aim, you can’t say one thing, and do another.  Perhaps the Department for Health doesn’t like the public answer to what the public wants from opt out, but that doesn’t make the DH view right.

Perhaps NHS Digital doesn’t want to deal with lots of individual opt out requests, that doesn’t make their refusal right.

Kingsley Manning recognised in July 2014, that the Information Centre “had made big mistakes over the last 10 years.” And there was “a once-in-a-generation chance to get it right.”

I didn’t think I’d have to move into the next one before they fix it.

The recent round of 2016 public feedback was the same as care.data 1.0. Respect nuanced opt outs and you will have all the identifiable public interest research data you want. Solutions must be better for other uses, opt out requests must be respected without distressing patients further in the process, and anonymous must mean  anonymous.

Pseudonymised data requests that go through the DARS process so that a Data Sharing Framework Contract and Data Sharing Agreement are in place are considered to be compliant with the ICO code of practice – fine, but they are not anonymous. If DARS is still giving my family’s data to Experian, Harvey Walsh, and co, despite opt out, I’ll be furious.

The [Caldicott 2] Review Panel found “that commissioners do not need dispensation from confidentiality, human rights & data protection law.

Neither do our politicians, their policies or ALBs.


[1] https://www.england.nhs.uk/ourwork/tsd/ig/ig-fair-process/further-info-gps/

“A patient can object to their confidential personal information from being disclosed out of the GP Practice and/or from being shared onwards by the HSCIC for non-direct care purposes (secondary purposes).”

[2] Minimum Mandatory Measures http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/information-management/cross-govt-actions.pdf p7

care.data listening events and consultation: The same notes again?

If lots of things get said in a programme of events, and nothing is left around to read about it, did they happen?

The care.data programme 2014-15 listening exercise and action plan has become impossible to find online. That’s OK, you might think, the programme has been scrapped. Not quite.

You can give your views online until September 7th on the new consultation, “New data security standards and opt-out models for health and social care”  and/or attend the new listening events, September 26th in London, October 3rd in Southampton and October 10th in Leeds.

The Ministerial statement on July 6, announced that NHS England had taken the decision to close the care.data programme after the review of data security and consent by Dame Fiona Caldicott, the National Data Guardian for Health and Care.

But the same questions are being asked again around consent and use of your medical data, from primary and secondary care. What a very long questionnaire asks is in effect,  do you want to keep your medical history private? You can answer only Q 15 if you want.

Ambiguity again surrounds what constitutes “de-identified” patient information.

What is clear is that public voice seems to have been deleted or lost from the care.data programme along with the feedback and brand.

People spoke up in 2014, and acted. The opt out that 1 in 45 people chose between January and March 2014 was put into effect by the HSCIC in April 2016. Now it seems, that might be revoked.

We’ve been here before.  There is no way that primary care data can be extracted without consent without it causing further disruption and damage to public trust and public interest research.  The future plans for linkage between all primary care data and secondary data and genomics for secondary uses, is untenable without consent.

Upcoming events cost time and money and will almost certainly go over the same ground that hours and hours were spent on in 2014. However if they do achieve a meaningful response rate, then I hope the results will not be lost and will be combined with those already captured under the ‘care.data listening events’ responses.  Will they have any impact on what consent model there may be in future?

So what we gonna do? I don’t know, whatcha wanna do? Let’s do something.

Let’s have accredited access and security fixed. While there may now be a higher transparency and process around release, there are still problems about who gets data and what they do with it.

Let’s have clear future scope and control. There is still no plan to give the public rights to control or delete data if we change our minds who can have it or for what purposes. And that is very uncertain. After all, they might decide to privatise or outsource the whole thing as was planned for the CSUs. 

Let’s have answers to everything already asked but unknown. The questions in the previous Caldicott review have still to be answered.

We have the possibility to  see health data used wisely, safely, and with public trust. But we seem stuck with the same notes again. And the public seem to be the last to be invited to participate and views once gathered, seem to be disregarded. I hope to be proved wrong.

Might, perhaps, the consultation deliver the nuanced consent model discussed at public listening exercises that many asked for?

Will the care.data listening events feedback summary be found, and will its 2014 conclusions and the enacted opt out be ignored? Will the new listening event view make more difference than in 2014?

Is public engagement, engagement, if nobody hears what was said?

Mum, are we there yet? Why should AI care.

Mike Loukides drew similarities between the current status of AI and children’s learning in an article I read this week.

The children I know are always curious to know where they are going, how long will it take, and how they will know when they get there. They ask others for guidance often.

Loukides wrote that if you look carefully at how humans learn, you see surprisingly little unsupervised learning.

If unsupervised learning is a prerequisite for general intelligence, but not the substance, what should we be looking for, he asked. It made me wonder is it also true that general intelligence is a prerequisite for unsupervised learning? And if so, what level of learning must AI achieve before it is capable of recursive self-improvement? What is AI being encouraged to look for as it learns, what is it learning as it looks?

What is AI looking for and how will it know when it gets there?

Loukides says he can imagine a toddler learning some rudiments of counting and addition on his or her own, but can’t imagine a child developing any sort of higher mathematics without a teacher.

I suggest a different starting point. I think children develop on their own, given a foundation. And if the foundation is accompanied by a purpose — to understand why they should learn to count, and why they should want to — and if they have the inspiration, incentive and  assets they’ll soon go off on their own, and outstrip your level of knowledge. That may or may not be with a teacher depending on what is available, cost, and how far they get compared with what they want to achieve.

It’s hard to learn something from scratch by yourself if you have no boundaries to set knowledge within and search for more, or to know when to stop when you have found it.

You’ve only to start an online course, get stuck, and try to find the solution through a search engine to know how hard it can be to find the answer if you don’t know what you’re looking for. You can’t type in search terms if you don’t know the right words to describe the problem.

I described this recently to a fellow codebar-goer, more experienced than me, and she pointed out something much better to me. Don’t search for the solution or describe what you’re trying to do, ask the search engine to find others with the same error message.

In effect she said, your search is wrong. Google knows the answer, but can’t tell you what you want to know, if you don’t ask it in the way it expects.

So what will AI expect from people and will it care if we dont know how to interrelate? How does AI best serve humankind and defined by whose point-of-view? Will AI serve only those who think most closely in AI style steps and language?  How will it serve those who don’t know how to talk about, or with it? AI won’t care if we don’t.

If as Loukides says, we humans are good at learning something and then applying that knowledge in a completely different area, it’s worth us thinking about how we are transferring our knowledge today to AI and how it learns from that. Not only what does AI learn in content and context, but what does it learn about learning?

His comparison of a toddler learning from parents — who in effect are ‘tagging’ objects through repetition of words while looking at images in a picture book — made me wonder how we will teach AI the benefit of learning? What incentive will it have to progress?

“the biggest project facing AI isn’t making the learning process faster and more efficient. It’s moving from machines that solve one problem very well (such as playing Go or generating imitation Rembrandts) to machines that are flexible and can solve many unrelated problems well, even problems they’ve never seen before.”

Is the skill to enable “transfer learning” what will matter most?

For AI to become truly useful, we need better as a global society to understand *where* it might best interface with our daily lives, and most importantly *why*.  And consider *who* is teaching and AI and who is being left out in the crowdsourcing of AI’s teaching.

Who is teaching AI what it needs to know?

The natural user interfaces for people to interact with today’s more common virtual assistants (Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Viv, Microsoft  and Cortana) are not just providing information to the user, but through its use, those systems are learning. I wonder what percentage of today’s  population is using these assistants, how representative are they, and what our AI assistants are being taught through their use? Tay was a swift lesson learned for Microsoft.

In helping shape what AI learns, what range of language it will use to develop its reference words and knowledge, society co-shapes what AI’s purpose will be —  and for AI providers to know what’s the point of selling it. So will this technology serve everyone?

Are providers counter-balancing what AI is currently learning from crowdsourcing, if the crowd is not representative of society?

So far we can only teach machines to make decisions based on what we already know, and what we can tell it to decide quickly against pre-known references using lots of data. Will your next image captcha, teach AI to separate the sloth from the pain-au-chocolat?

One of the task items for machine processing is better searches. Measurable goal driven tasks have boundaries, but who sets them? When does a computer know, if it’s found enough to make a decision. If the balance of material about the Holocaust on the web for example, were written by Holocaust deniers will AI know who is right? How will AI know what is trusted and by whose measure?

What will matter most is surely not going to be how to optimise knowledge transfer from human to AI — that is the baseline knowledge of supervised learning — and it won’t even be for AI to know when to use its skill set in one place and when to apply it elsewhere in a different context; so-called learning transfer, as Mike Loukides says. But rather, will AI reach the point where it cares?

  • Will AI ever care what it should know and where to stop or when it knows enough on any given subject?
  • How will it know or care if what it learns is true?
  • If in the best interests of advancing technology or through inaction  we do not limit its boundaries, what oversight is there of its implications?

Online limits will limit what we can reach in Thinking and Learning

If you look carefully at how humans learn online, I think rather than seeing  surprisingly little unsupervised learning, you see a lot of unsupervised questioning. It is often in the questioning that is done in private we discover, and through discovery we learn. Often valuable discoveries are made; whether in science, in maths, or important truths are found where there is a need to challenge the status quo. Imagine if Galileo had given up.

The freedom to think freely and to challenge authority, is vital to protect, and one reason why I and others are concerned about the compulsory web monitoring starting on September 5th in all schools in England, and its potential chilling effect. Some are concerned who  might have access to these monitoring results today or in future, if stored could they be opened to employers or academic institutions?

If you tell children do not use these search terms and do not be curious about *this* subject without repercussions, it is censorship. I find the idea bad enough for children, but for us as adults its scary.

As Frankie Boyle wrote last November, we need to consider what our internet history is:

“The legislation seems to view it as a list of actions, but it’s not. It’s a document that shows what we’re thinking about.”

Children think and act in ways that they may not as an adult. People also think and act differently in private and in public. It’s concerning that our private online activity will become visible to the State in the IP Bill — whether photographs that captured momentary actions in social media platforms without the possibility to erase them, or trails of transitive thinking via our web history — and third-parties may make covert judgements and conclusions about us, correctly or not, behind the scenes without transparency, oversight or recourse.

Children worry about lack of recourse and repercussions. So do I. Things done in passing, can take on a permanence they never had before and were never intended. If expert providers of the tech world such as Apple Inc, Facebook Inc, Google Inc, Microsoft Corp, Twitter Inc and Yahoo Inc are calling for change, why is the government not listening? This is more than very concerning, it will have disastrous implications for trust in the State, data use by others, self-censorship, and fear that it will lead to outright censorship of adults online too.

By narrowing our parameters what will we not discover? Not debate?  Or not invent? Happy are the clockmakers, and kids who create. Any restriction on freedom to access information, to challenge and question will restrict children’s learning or even their wanting to.  It will limit how we can improve our shared knowledge and improve our society as a result. The same is true of adults.

So in teaching AI how to learn, I wonder how the limitations that humans put on its scope — otherwise how would it learn what the developers want — combined with showing it ‘our thinking’ through search terms,  and how limitations on that if users self-censor due to surveillance, will shape what AI will help us with in future and will it be the things that could help the most people, the poorest people, or will it be people like those who programme the AI and use search terms and languages it already understands?

Who is accountable for the scope of what we allow AI to do or not? Who is accountable for what AI learns about us, from our behaviour data if it is used without our knowledge?

How far does AI have to go?

The leap for AI will be if and when AI can determine what it doesn’t know, and it sees a need to fill that gap. To do that, AI will need to discover a purpose for its own learning, indeed for its own being, and be able to do so without limitation from the that humans shaped its framework for doing so. How will AI know what it needs to know and why? How will it know, what it knows is right and sources to trust? Against what boundaries will AI decide what it should engage with in its learning, who from and why? Will it care? Why will it care? Will it find meaning in its reason for being? Why am I here?

We assume AI will know better. We need to care, if AI is going to.

How far are we away from a machine that is capable of recursive self-improvement, asks John Naughton in yesterday’s Guardian, referencing work by Yuval Harari suggesting artificial intelligence and genetic enhancements will usher in a world of inequality and powerful elites. As I was finishing this, I read his article, and found myself nodding, as I read the implications of new technology focus too much on technology and too little on society’s role in shaping it.

AI at the moment has a very broad meaning to the general public. Is it living with life-supporting humanoids?  Do we consider assistive search tools as AI? There is a fairly general understanding of “What is A.I., really?” Some wonder if we are “probably one of the last generations of Homo sapiens,” as we know it.

If the purpose of AI is to improve human lives, who defines improvement and who will that improvement serve? Is there a consensus on the direction AI should and should not take, and how far it should go? What will the global language be to speak AI?

As AI learning progresses, every time AI turns to ask its creators, “Are we there yet?”,  how will we know what to say?

image: Stephen Barling flickr.com/photos/cripsyduck (CC BY-NC 2.0)

OkCupid and Google DeepMind: Happily ever after? Purposes and ethics in datasharing

This blog post is also available as an audio file on soundcloud.


What constitutes the public interest must be set in a universally fair and transparent ethics framework if the benefits of research are to be realised – whether in social science, health, education and more – that framework will provide a strategy to getting the pre-requisite success factors right, ensuring research in the public interest is not only fit for the future, but thrives. There has been a climate change in consent. We need to stop talking about barriers that prevent datasharing  and start talking about the boundaries within which we can.

What is the purpose for which I provide my personal data?

‘We use math to get you dates’, says OkCupid’s tagline.

That’s the purpose of the site. It’s the reason people log in and create a profile, enter their personal data and post it online for others who are looking for dates to see. The purpose, is to get a date.

When over 68K OkCupid users registered for the site to find dates, they didn’t sign up to have their identifiable data used and published in ‘a very large dataset’ and onwardly re-used by anyone with unregistered access. The users data were extracted “without the express prior consent of the user […].”

Are the registration consent purposes compatible with the purposes to which the researcher put the data should be a simple enough question.  Are the research purposes what the person signed up to, or would they be surprised to find out their data were used like this?

Questions the “OkCupid data snatcher”, now self-confessed ‘non-academic’ researcher, thought unimportant to consider.

But it appears in the last month, he has been in good company.

Google DeepMind, and the Royal Free, big players who do know how to handle data and consent well, paid too little attention to the very same question of purposes.

The boundaries of how the users of OkCupid had chosen to reveal information and to whom, have not been respected in this project.

Nor were these boundaries respected by the Royal Free London trust that gave out patient data for use by Google DeepMind with changing explanations, without clear purposes or permission.

The legal boundaries in these recent stories appear unclear or to have been ignored. The privacy boundaries deemed irrelevant. Regulatory oversight lacking.

The respectful ethical boundaries of consent to purposes, disregarding autonomy, have indisputably broken down, whether by commercial org, public body, or lone ‘researcher’.

Research purposes

The crux of data access decisions is purposes. What question is the research to address – what is the purpose for which the data will be used? The intent by Kirkegaard was to test:

“the relationship of cognitive ability to religious beliefs and political interest/participation…”

In this case the question appears intended rather a test of the data, not the data opened up to answer the test. While methodological studies matter, given the care and attention [or self-stated lack thereof] given to its extraction and any attempt to be representative and fair, it would appear this is not the point of this study either.

The data doesn’t include profiles identified as heterosexual male, because ‘the scraper was’. It is also unknown how many users hide their profiles, “so the 99.7% figure [identifying as binary male or female] should be cautiously interpreted.”

“Furthermore, due to the way we sampled the data from the site, it is not even representative of the users on the site, because users who answered more questions are overrepresented.” [sic]

The paper goes on to say photos were not gathered because they would have taken up a lot of storage space and could be done in a future scraping, and

“other data were not collected because we forgot to include them in the scraper.”

The data are knowingly of poor quality, inaccurate and incomplete. The project cannot be repeated as ‘the scraping tool no longer works’. There is an unclear ethical or peer review process, and the research purpose is at best unclear. We can certainly give someone the benefit of the doubt and say intent appears to have been entirely benevolent. It’s not clear what the intent was. I think it is clearly misplaced and foolish, but not malevolent.

The trouble is, it’s not enough to say, “don’t be evil.” These actions have consequences.

When the researcher asserts in his paper that, “the lack of data sharing probably slows down the progress of science immensely because other researchers would use the data if they could,”  in part he is right.

Google and the Royal Free have tried more eloquently to say the same thing. It’s not research, it’s direct care, in effect, ignore that people are no longer our patients and we’re using historical data without re-consent. We know what we’re doing, we’re the good guys.

However the principles are the same, whether it’s a lone project or global giant. And they’re both wildly wrong as well. More people must take this on board. It’s the reason the public interest needs the Dame Fiona Caldicott review published sooner rather than later.

Just because there is a boundary to data sharing in place, does not mean it is a barrier to be ignored or overcome. Like the registration step to the OkCupid site, consent and the right to opt out of medical research in England and Wales is there for a reason.

We’re desperate to build public trust in UK research right now. So to assert that the lack of data sharing probably slows down the progress of science is misplaced, when it is getting ‘sharing’ wrong, that caused the lack of trust in the first place and harms research.

A climate change in consent

There has been a climate change in public attitude to consent since care.data, clouded by the smoke and mirrors of state surveillance. It cannot be ignored.  The EUGDPR supports it. Researchers may not like change, but there needs to be an according adjustment in expectations and practice.

Without change, there will be no change. Public trust is low. As technology advances and if we continue to see commercial companies get this wrong, we will continue to see public trust falter unless broken things get fixed. Change is possible for the better. But it has to come from companies, institutions, and people within them.

Like climate change, you may deny it if you choose to. But some things are inevitable and unavoidably true.

There is strong support for public interest research but that is not to be taken for granted. Public bodies should defend research from being sunk by commercial misappropriation if they want to future-proof public interest research.

The purpose for which the people gave consent are the boundaries within which you have permission to use data, that gives you freedom within its limits, to use the data.  Purposes and consent are not barriers to be overcome.

If research is to win back public trust developing a future proofed, robust ethical framework for data science must be a priority today.

Commercial companies must overcome the low levels of public trust they have generated in the public to date if they ask ‘trust us because we’re not evil‘. If you can’t rule out the use of data for other purposes, it’s not helping. If you delay independent oversight it’s not helping.

This case study and indeed the Google DeepMind recent episode by contrast demonstrate the urgency with which working out what common expectations and oversight of applied ethics in research, who gets to decide what is ‘in the public interest’ and data science public engagement must be made a priority, in the UK and beyond.

Boundaries in the best interest of the subject and the user

Society needs research in the public interest. We need good decisions made on what will be funded and what will not be. What will influence public policy and where needs attention for change.

To do this ethically, we all need to agree what is fair use of personal data, when is it closed and when is it open, what is direct and what are secondary uses, and how advances in technology are used when they present both opportunities for benefit or risks to harm to individuals, to society and to research as a whole.

The potential benefits of research are potentially being compromised for the sake of arrogance, greed, or misjudgement, no matter intent. Those benefits cannot come at any cost, or disregard public concern, or the price will be trust in all research itself.

In discussing this with social science and medical researchers, I realise not everyone agrees. For some, using deidentified data in trusted third party settings poses such a low privacy risk, that they feel the public should have no say in whether their data are used in research as long it’s ‘in the public interest’.

For the DeepMind researchers and Royal Free, they were confident even using identifiable data, this is the “right” thing to do, without consent.

For the Cabinet Office datasharing consultation, the parts that will open up national registries, share identifiable data more widely and with commercial companies, they are convinced it is all the “right” thing to do, without consent.

How can researchers, society and government understand what is good ethics of data science, as technology permits ever more invasive or covert data mining and the current approach is desperately outdated?

Who decides where those boundaries lie?

“It’s research Jim, but not as we know it.” This is one aspect of data use that ethical reviewers will need to deal with, as we advance the debate on data science in the UK. Whether independents or commercial organisations. Google said their work was not research. Is‘OkCupid’ research?

If this research and data publication proves anything at all, and can offer lessons to learn from, it is perhaps these three things:

Who is accredited as a researcher or ‘prescribed person’ matters. If we are considering new datasharing legislation, and for example, who the UK government is granting access to millions of children’s personal data today. Your idea of a ‘prescribed person’ may not be the same as the rest of the public’s.

Researchers and ethics committees need to adjust to the climate change of public consent. Purposes must be respected in research particularly when sharing sensitive, identifiable data, and there should be no assumptions made that differ from the original purposes when users give consent.

Data ethics and laws are desperately behind data science technology. Governments, institutions, civil, and all society needs to reach a common vision and leadership how to manage these challenges. Who defines these boundaries that matter?

How do we move forward towards better use of data?

Our data and technology are taking on a life of their own, in space which is another frontier, and in time, as data gathered in the past might be used for quite different purposes today.

The public are being left behind in the game-changing decisions made by those who deem they know best about the world we want to live in. We need a say in what shape society wants that to take, particularly for our children as it is their future we are deciding now.

How about an ethical framework for datasharing that supports a transparent public interest, which tries to build a little kinder, less discriminating, more just world, where hope is stronger than fear?

Working with people, with consent, with public support and transparent oversight shouldn’t be too much to ask. Perhaps it is naive, but I believe that with an independent ethical driver behind good decision-making, we could get closer to datasharing like that.

That would bring Better use of data in government.

Purposes and consent are not barriers to be overcome. Within these, shaped by a strong ethical framework, good data sharing practices can tackle some of the real challenges that hinder ‘good use of data’: training, understanding data protection law, communications, accountability and intra-organisational trust. More data sharing alone won’t fix these structural weaknesses in current UK datasharing which are our really tough barriers to good practice.

How our public data will be used in the public interest will not be a destination or have a well defined happy ending, but it is a long term  process which needs to be consensual and there needs to be a clear path to setting out together and achieving collaborative solutions.

While we are all different, I believe that society shares for the most part, commonalities in what we accept as good, and fair, and what we believe is important. The family sitting next to me have just counted out their money and bought an ice cream to share, and the staff gave them two. The little girl is beaming. It seems that even when things are difficult, there is always hope things can be better. And there is always love.

Even if some might give it a bad name.

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img credit: flickr/sofi01/ Beauty and The Beast  under creative commons

Can new datasharing laws win social legitimacy, public trust and support without public engagement?

I’ve been struck by stories I’ve heard on the datasharing consultation, on data science, and on data infrastructures as part of ‘government as a platform’ (#GaaPFuture) in recent weeks. The audio recorded by the Royal Statistical Society on March 17th is excellent, and there were some good questions asked.

There were even questions from insurance backed panels to open up more data for commercial users, and calls for journalists to be seen as accredited researchers, as well as to include health data sharing. Three things that some stakeholders, all users of data, feel are  missing from consultation, and possibly some of those with the most widespread public concern and lowest levels of public trust. [1]

What I feel is missing in consultation discussions are:

  1. a representative range of independent public voice
  2. a compelling story of needs – why tailored public services benefits citizens from whom data is taken, not only benefits data users
  3. the impacts we expect to see in local government
  4. any cost/risk/benefit assessment of those impacts, or for citizens
  5. how the changes will be independently evaluated – as some are to be reviewed

The Royal Statistical Society and ODI have good summaries here of their thoughts, more geared towards the statistical and research aspects of data,  infrastructure and the consultation.

I focus on the other strands that use identifiable data for targeted interventions. Tailored public services, Debt, Fraud, Energy Companies’ use. I think we talk too little of people, and real needs.

Why the State wants more datasharing is not yet a compelling story and public need and benefit seem weak.

So far the creation of new data intermediaries, giving copies of our personal data to other public bodies  – and let’s be clear that this often means through commercial representatives like G4S, Atos, Management consultancies and more –  is yet to convince me of true public needs for the people, versus wants from parts of the State.

What the consultation hopes to achieve, is new powers of law, to give increased data sharing increased legal authority. However this alone will not bring about the social legitimacy of datasharing that the consultation appears to seek through ‘open policy making’.

Legitimacy is badly needed if there is to be public and professional support for change and increased use of our personal data as held by the State, which is missing today,  as care.data starkly exposed. [2]

The gap between Social Legitimacy and the Law

Almost 8 months ago now, before I knew about the datasharing consultation work-in-progress, I suggested to BIS that there was an opportunity for the UK to drive excellence in public involvement in the use of public data by getting real engagement, through pro-active consent.

The carrot for this, is achieving the goal that government wants – greater legal clarity, the use of a significant number of consented people’s personal data for complex range of secondary uses as a secondary benefit.

It was ignored.

If some feel entitled to the right to infringe on citizens’ privacy through a new legal gateway because they believe the public benefit outweighs private rights, then they must also take on the increased balance of risk of doing so, and a responsibility to  do so safely. It is in principle a slippery slope. Any new safeguards and ethics for how this will be done are however unclear in those data strands which are for targeted individual interventions. Especially if predictive.

Upcoming discussions on codes of practice [which have still to be shared] should demonstrate how this is to happen in practice, but codes are not sufficient. Laws which enable will be pushed to their borderline of legal and beyond that of ethical.

In England who would have thought that the 2013 changes that permitted individual children’s data to be given to third parties [3] for educational purposes, would mean giving highly sensitive, identifiable data to journalists without pupils or parental consent? The wording allows it. It is legal. However it fails the DPA Act legal requirement of fair processing.  Above all, it lacks social legitimacy and common sense.

In Scotland, there is current anger over the intrusive ‘named person’ laws which lack both professional and public support and intrude on privacy. Concerns raised should be lessons to learn from in England.

Common sense says laws must take into account social legitimacy.

We have been told at the open policy meetings that this change will not remove the need for informed consent. To be informed, means creating the opportunity for proper communications, and also knowing how you can use the service without coercion, i.e. not having to consent to secondary data uses in order to get the service, and knowing to withdraw consent at any later date. How will that be offered with ways of achieving the removal of data after sharing?

The stick for change, is the legal duty that the recent 2015 CJEU ruling reiterating the legal duty to fair processing [4] waved about. Not just a nice to have, but State bodies’ responsibility to inform citizens when their personal data are used for purposes other than those for which those data had initially been consented and given. New legislation will not  remove this legal duty.

How will it be achieved without public engagement?

Engagement is not PR

Failure to act on what you hear from listening to the public is costly.

Engagement is not done *to* people, don’t think explain why we need the data and its public benefit’ will work. Policy makers must engage with fears and not seek to dismiss or diminish them, but acknowledge and mitigate them by designing technically acceptable solutions. Solutions that enable data sharing in a strong framework of privacy and ethics, not that sees these concepts as barriers. Solutions that have social legitimacy because people support them.

Mr Hunt’s promised February 2014 opt out of anonymised data being used in health research, has yet to be put in place and has had immeasurable costs for delayed public research, and public trust.

How long before people consider suing the DH as data controller for misuse? From where does the arrogance stem that decides to ignore legal rights, moral rights and public opinion of more people than those who voted for the Minister responsible for its delay?

 

This attitude is what fails care.data and the harm is ongoing to public trust and to confidence for researchers’ continued access to data.

The same failure was pointed out by the public members of the tiny Genomics England public engagement meeting two years ago in March 2014, called to respond to concerns over the lack of engagement and potential harm for existing research. The comms lead made a suggestion that the new model of the commercialisation of the human genome in England, to be embedded in the NHS by 2017 as standard clinical practice, was like steam trains in Victorian England opening up the country to new commercial markets. The analogy was felt by the lay attendees to be, and I quote, ‘ridiculous.’

Exploiting confidential personal data for public good must have support and good two-way engagement if it is to get that support, and what is said and agreed must be acted on to be trustworthy.

Policy makers must take into account broad public opinion, and that is unlikely to be submitted to a Parliamentary consultation. (Personally, I first knew such  processes existed only when care.data was brought before the Select Committee in 2014.) We already know what many in the public think about sharing their confidential data from the work with care.data and objections to third party access, to lack of consent. Just because some policy makers don’t like what was said, doesn’t make that public opinion any less valid.

We must bring to the table the public voice from past but recent public engagement work on administrative datasharing [5], the voice of the non-research community, and from those who are not stakeholders who will use the data but the ‘data subjects’, the public  whose data are to be used.

Policy Making must be built on Public Trust

Open policy making is not open just because it says it is. Who has been invited, participated, and how their views actually make a difference on content and implementation is what matters.

Adding controversial ideas at the last minute is terrible engagement, its makes the process less trustworthy and diminishes its legitimacy.

This last minute change suggests some datasharing will be dictated despite critical views in the policy making and without any public engagement. If so, we should ask policy makers on what mandate?

Democracy depends on social legitimacy. Once you lose public trust, it is not easy to restore.

Can new datasharing laws win social legitimacy, public trust and support without public engagement?

In my next post I’ll post look at some of the public engagement work done on datasharing to date, and think about ethics in how data are applied.

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References:

[1] The Royal Statistical Society data trust deficit

[2] “The social licence for research: why care.data ran into trouble,” by Carter et al.

[3] FAQs: Campaign for safe and ethical National Pupil Data

[4] CJEU Bara 2015 Ruling – fair processing between public bodies

[5] Public Dialogues using Administrative data (ESRC / ADRN)

img credit: flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/

A data sharing fairytale (3): transformation and impact

Part three: It is vital that the data sharing consultation is not seen in a silo, or even a set of silos each particular to its own stakeholder. To do it justice and ensure the questions that should be asked are answered, we must look instead at the whole story and the background setting. And we must ask each stakeholder, what does your happy ending look like?

Parts one and two to follow address public engagement and ethics, this focuses on current national data practice, tailored public services, and local impact of the change and transformation that will result.

What is your happy ending?

This data sharing consultation is gradually revealing to me how disjoined government appears in practice and strategy. Our digital future, a society that is more inclusive and more just, supported by better uses of technology and data in ‘dot everyone’ will not happen if they cannot first join the dots across all of Cabinet thinking and good practice, and align policies that are out of step with each other.

Last Thursday night’s “Government as a Platform Future” panel discussion (#GaaPFuture) took me back to memories of my old job, working in business implementations of process and cutting edge systems. Our finest hour was showing leadership why success would depend on neither. Success was down to local change management and communications, because change is about people, not the tech.

People in this data sharing consultation, means the public, means the staff of local government public bodies, as well as the people working at national stakeholders of the UKSA (statistics strand), ADRN (de-identified research strand), Home Office (GRO strand), DWP (Fraud and Debt strands), and DECC (energy) and staff at the national driver, the Cabinet Office.

I’ve attended two of the 2016 datasharing meetings,  and am most interested from three points of view  – because I am directly involved in the de-identified data strand,  campaign for privacy, and believe in public engagement.

Engagement with civil society, after almost 2 years of involvement on three projects, and an almost ten month pause in between, the projects had suddenly become six in 2016, so the most sensitive strands of the datasharing legislation have been the least openly discussed.

At the end of the first 2016 meeting, I asked one question.

How will local change management be handled and the consultation tailored to local organisations’ understanding and expectations of its outcome?

Why? Because a top down data extraction programme from all public services opens up the extraction of personal data as business intelligence to national level, of all local services interactions with citizens’ data.  Or at least, those parts they have collected or may collect in future.

That means a change in how the process works today. Global business intelligence/data extractions are designed to make processes more efficient, through reductions in current delivery, yet concrete public benefits for citizens are hard to see that would be different from today, so why make this change in practice?

What it might mean for example, would be to enable collection of all citizens’ debt information into one place, and that would allow the service to centralise chasing debt and enforce its collection, outsourced to a single national commercial provider.

So what does the future look like from the top? What is the happy ending for each strand, that will be achieved should this legislation be passed?  What will success for each set of plans look like?

What will we stop doing, what will we start doing differently and how will services concretely change from today, the current state, to the future?

Most importantly to understand its implications for citizens and staff, we should ask how will this transformation be managed well to see the benefits we are told it will deliver?

Can we avoid being left holding a pumpkin, after the glitter of ‘use more shiny tech’ and government love affair with the promises of Big Data wear off?

Look into the local future

Those with the vision of the future on a panel at the GDS meeting this week, the new local government model enabled by GaaP, also identified, there are implications for potential loss of local jobs, and “turkeys won’t vote for Christmas”. So who is packaging this change to make it successfully deliverable?

If we can’t be told easily in consultation, then it is not a clear enough policy to deliver. If there is a clear end-state, then we should ask what the applied implications in practice are going to be?

It is vital that the data sharing consultation is not seen in a silo, or even a set of silos each particular to its own stakeholder, about copying datasets to share them more widely, but that we look instead at the whole story and the background setting.

The Tailored Reviews: public bodies guidance suggests massive reform of local government, looking for additional savings, looking to cut back office functions and commercial plans. It asks “What workforce reductions have already been agreed for the body? Is there potential to go further? Are these linked to digital savings referenced earlier?”

Options include ‘abolish, move out of central government, commercial model, bring in-house, merge with another body.’

So where is the local government public bodies engagement with change management plans in the datasharing consultation as a change process? Does it not exist?

I asked at the end of the first datasharing meeting in January and everyone looked a bit blank. A question ‘to take away’ turned into nothing.

Yet to make this work, the buy-in of local public bodies is vital. So why skirt round this issue in local government, if there are plans to address it properly?

If there are none, then with all the data in the world, public services delivery will not be improved, because the issues are friction not of interference by consent, or privacy issues, but working practices.

If the idea is to avoid this ‘friction’ by removing it, then where is the change management plan for public services and our public staff?

Trust depends on transparency

John Pullinger, our National Statistician, this week also said on datasharing we need a social charter on data to develop trust.

Trust can only be built between public and state if the organisations, and all the people in them, are trustworthy.

To implement process change successfully, the people involved in these affected organisations, the staff, must trust that change will mean positive improvement and risks explained.

For the public, what defined levels of data access, privacy protection, and scope limitation that this new consultation will permit in practice, are clearly going to be vital to define if the public will trust its purposes.

The consultation does not do this, and there is no draft code of conduct yet, and no one is willing to define ‘research’ or ‘public interest’.

Public interest models or ‘charter’ for collection and use of research data in health, concluded that ofr ethical purposes, time also mattered. Benefits must be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. So let’s talk about the intended end state that is to be achieved from these changes, and identify how its benefits are to meet those objectives – change without an intended end state will almost never be successful, if you don’t know start knowing what it looks like.

For public trust, that means scope boundaries. Sharing now, with today’s laws and ethics is only fully meaningful if we trust that today’s governance, ethics and safeguards will be changeable in future to the benefit of the citizen, not ever greater powers to the state at the expense of the individual. Where is scope defined?

There is very little information about where limits would be on what data could not be shared, or when it would not be possible to do so without explicit consent. Permissive powers put the onus onto the data controller to share, and given ‘a new law says you should share’ would become the mantra, it is likely to mean less individual accountability. Where are those lines to be drawn to support the staff and public, the data user and the data subject?

So to summarise, so far I have six key questions:

  • What does your happy ending look like for each data strand?
  • How will bad practices which conflict with the current consultation proposals be stopped?
  • How will the ongoing balance of use of data for government purposes, privacy and information rights be decided and by whom?
  • In what context will the ethical principles be shaped today?
  • How will the transformation from the current to that future end state be supported, paid for and delivered?
  • Who will oversee new policies and ensure good data science practices, protection and ethics are applied in practice?

This datasharing consultation is not entirely for something new, but expansion of what is done already. And in some places is done very badly.

How will the old stories and new be reconciled?

Wearing my privacy and public engagement hats, here’s an idea.

Perhaps before the central State starts collecting more, sharing more, and using more of our personal data for ‘tailored public services’ and more, the government should ask for a data amnesty?

It’s time to draw a line under bad practice.  Clear out the ethics drawers of bad historical practice, and start again, with a fresh chapter. Because current practices are not future-proofed and covering them up in the language of ‘better data ethics’ will fail.

The consultation assures us that: “These proposals are not about selling public or personal data, collecting new data from citizens or weakening the Data Protection Act 1998.”

However it does already sell out personal data from at least BIS. How will these contradictory positions across all Departments be resolved?

The left hand gives out de-identified data in safe settings for public benefit research while the right hands out over 10 million records to the Telegraph and The Times without parental or schools’ consent. Only in la-la land are these both considered ethical.

Will somebody at the data sharing meeting please ask, “when will this stop?” It is wrong. These are our individual children’s identifiable personal data. Stop giving them away to press and charities and commercial users without informed consent. It’s ludicrous. Yet it is real.

Policy makers should provide an assurance there are plans for this to change as part of this consultation.

Without it, the consultation line about commercial use, is at best disingenuous, at worst a bare cheeked lie.

“These powers will also ensure we can improve the safe handling of citizen data by bringing consistency and improved safeguards to the way it is handled.”

Will it? Show me how and I might believe it.

Privacy, it was said at the RSS event, is the biggest concern in this consultation:

“includes proposals to expand the use of appropriate and ethical data science techniques to help tailor interventions to the public”

“also to start fixing government’s data infrastructure to better support public services.”

The techniques need outlined what they mean, and practices fixed now, because many stand on shaky legal ground. These privacy issues have come about over cumulative governments of different parties in the last ten years, so the problems are non-partisan, but need practical fixes.

Today, less than transparent international agreements push ‘very far-reaching chapters on the liberalisation of data trading’ while according to the European Court of Justice these practices lack a solid legal basis.

Today our government already gives our children’s personal data to commercial third parties and sells our higher education data without informed consent, while the DfE and BIS both know they fail processing and its potential consequences: the European Court reaffirmed in 2015 “persons whose personal data are subject to transfer and processing between two public administrative bodies must be informed in advance” in Judgment in Case C-201/14.

In a time that actively cultivates universal public fear,  it is time for individuals to be brave and ask the awkward questions because you either solve them up front, or hit the problems later. The child who stood up and said The Emperor has on no clothes, was right.

What’s missing?

The consultation conversation will only be genuine, once the policy makers acknowledge and address solutions regards:

  1. those data practices that are currently unethical and must change
  2. how the tailored public services datasharing legislation will shape the delivery of government services’ infrastructure and staff, as well as the service to the individual in the public.

If we start by understanding what the happy ending looks like, we are much more likely to arrive there, and how to measure success.

The datasharing consultation engagement, the ethics of data science, and impact on data infrastructures as part of ‘government as a platform’ need seen as a whole joined up story if we are each to consider what success for us as stakeholders, looks like.

We need to call out current data failings and things that are missing, to get them fixed.

Without a strong, consistent ethical framework you risk 3 things:

  1. data misuse and loss of public trust
  2. data non-use because your staff don’t trust they’re doing it right
  3. data is becoming a toxic asset

The upcoming meetings should address this and ask practically:

  1. How the codes of conduct, and ethics, are to be shaped, and by whom, if outwith the consultation?
  2. What is planned to manage and pay for the future changes in our data infrastructures;  ie the models of local government delivery?
  3. What is the happy ending that each data strand wants to achieve through this and how will the success criteria be measured?

Public benefit is supposed to be at the heart of this change. For UK statistics, for academic public benefit research, they are clear.

For some of the other strands, local public benefits that outweigh the privacy risks and do not jeopardise public trust seem like magical unicorns dancing in the land far, far away of centralised government; hard to imagine, and even harder to capture.

*****

Part one: A data sharing fairytale: Engagement
Part two: A data sharing fairytale: Ethics
Part three: A data sharing fairytale: Impact (this post)

Tailored public bodies review: Feb 2016

img credit: Hermann Vogel illustration ‘Cinderella’